OPINION: CTVOB’s Bill Morris on the challenges of audio comms

I am not one of life’s natural linguists. I have inherited many of my dearly departed father’s traits and idiosyncrasies but fluency in overseas tongues is not one of them. My father spent much of the latter part of his life overseas and had an innate capacity to learn languages and mimic accents. Some dialects however escaped him, yet being the product of a generation whereby the volume that one addresses a telephone mouthpiece is directly proportional to the geographical distance the listener is away from you, he invariably made himself understood. I attribute my mid-life tinnitus not to a career televising music shows, but a childhood sharing a house in Somerset with a man who could quite easily communicate with Moscow regardless of whether he was using a telephone or not.

These days, the commercial success of most companies, regardless of whether they are in the television domain or not, depends largely upon their ability to operate in a global marketplace. Television outside broadcast companies in general and CTV in particular benefit greatly from their European and American alliances. Our UK operation is part of the vast Euro Media Group and our operational language flits between English, French, Dutch, Flemish and German, although our commercial language thankfully remains in the English domain. Our partner trucks from all over mainland Europe to work regularly under our flag in British locations, servicing our entertainment and sport portfolio during times of peak demand. Conversely, we work under our various partners flags in their own territories. The group is a shared and varied resource with a common technical language. Through working with our European operations, the CTV audio crew have learned to use products and manufacturers who they would not have necessarily been exposed to.

Lawo mixers and the Reidel family of communications matrixes are far more common on mainland Europe than in the UK, although the latter manufacturer is beginning to gain a foothold in the domestic OB market. I instinctively like the ergonomics of the Reidel panels and once you have learned to press the illuminated display text rather than search for a latchable key in its vicinity, the system has a rather pleasing logic to it.

Telex however, still dominates the UK and US markets in Outside Broadcast Communications matrix solutions. The familiar protocol and programming that all US and UK audio engineers take in their stride is a huge marketing tool for each new generation of the RTS system. Our US clients rely on the supply of familiar facilities when working in Europe and in a business where communication is vital. Telex is often top of their shopping list when choosing an OB vendor for their operations. There is however a vital communication skill that is an essential pre-requisite for every UK technical manager or audio engineer working with a US production crew; the ability to speak ‘TV American’. In an environment where the sound supervisor is known as the A1 and his audio engineer as the A2 beware if you are ever referred to as C3.

Whilst tech managing a live entertainment show recently, I was reminded of a perennial problem that we face on each and every televised awards show. Despite clear briefings from floor management, it is the natural tendency of guest presenters and award recipients alike to lean into the microphone, especially when it is lectern mounted. The image of an award recipient bending low over a pair of mic capsules is not a pleasing televisual composition.

PA companies that we regularly work with tend to use Shure 412 or 418 kits, depending on the height of the lectern. The taller 18-inch’ 418 with its adjustable stalk is often positioned as close to the speakers anticipated body position as possible in order to counteract their natural reflex to lean into the mic. We try and use as little fold back as possible on set in order to minimise colouration of the programme sound, but this in turn can deceive the speaker into believing that they are not being heard in the room and their instinct is to speak closer to the capsule. It is a fine balance between microphone placement and fold back, a balance that is also very much influenced by the set designer, who more often than not, wishes to present a clean stage devoid of wedges or point speakers. I was discussing this subject recently with an industry colleague who designs the front of house sound for many of the shows that we at CTV televise. He admitted that there were several ways to balance microphone placement with fold back, but nothing can be done to protect lectern mics from would be ‘Tank Drivers’, who firmly grasp a delicate stalk in each hand and attempt to steer the lectern across open country whilst announcing the nominees or thanking their mothers.